E-Race-Ing Gender: The Racial Construction of Prison Rape

Kim Shayo Buchanan

USC Gould School of Law

October 2012

USC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 11-27

Prison rape is a form of gender violence. Men’s prisons institutionalize a toxic form of masculinity when they foster homophobia, physical violence and an institutional culture that requires inmates to prove their masculinity by fighting. Staff and inmate abusers alike target small, young, effeminate, gay, bisexual and transgender inmates. According to recent nationwide survey data, the two factors that most strongly predict an inmate’s risk of sexual abuse are (1) prior sexual victimization, and (2) gay, bisexual or transgender identity. Nonetheless, prison rape continues to be understood in accordance with an inaccurate stereotype that it is typically black-on-white. The results of six recent nationwide surveys consistently refute the stereotype: there is no evidence that white prisoners are targeted for sexual abuse. The unsubstantiated racial rape myth obscures genuine racial disparities in sexual victimization that are revealed by survey after survey: inmate abusers disproportionately target multiracial prisoners, while staff abusers disproportionately target black prisoners. These counter-stereotypical racial disparities have been completely ignored in prison policy and prison-rape discourse. The stereotype may affect the institutional response to sexual abuse allegations: although most sexual abuse victims are nonwhite, an overwhelming majority of allegations that prison investigators find “substantiated” involve white victims. The racial rape myth deflects policy attention from the gendered institutional practices that foster prison rape. Most prison rapists are staff, not inmates; the factors that most affect an inmate’s risk of victimization are gendered, not racial. The persistence of the racial rape myth in the face of contradictory empirical data raises important questions about the rule of law at the intersection of race and gender. These are questions I explore and expand upon in the article I am currently working on, Engendering Race, 59 UCLA L. Rev. – (forthcoming, 2012).

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Date posted: November 25, 2011 ; Last revised: October 19, 2012

Suggested Citation

Buchanan, Kim Shayo, E-Race-Ing Gender: The Racial Construction of Prison Rape (October 2012). MASCULINITIES AND THE LAW: A MULTIDIMENSIONAL APPROACH, Frank R. Cooper, Ann C. McGinley, eds., NYU Press, 2012; USC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 11-27. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1963837

Contact Information

Kim S. Buchanan (Contact Author)
USC Gould School of Law ( email )
699 Exposition Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States

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